Covert video footage published showing masked man with trapped goshawk on van Cutsem’s Hilborough Estate

Yet more evidence has emerged about the police investigation into alleged raptor persecution on William van Cutsem’s Hilborough Estate in Norfolk (see here, here, here for previous blogs).

Last night, the Hunt Investigation Team (HIT), a group describing itself as ‘anti-bloodsports’, published covert video footage it claims was filmed on van Cutsem’s estate. The footage shows a crow cage trap in woodland, the trap had been baited with live pigeons (this is an offence) and a young goshawk was attracted to the bait, entered the trap and then couldn’t escape. A masked man is then recorded entering the trap, pinning the goshawk to the side netting with a stick so he could grab the bird, and then removing it from the trap and walking away with it (also an offence). The goshawk’s fate is not shown.

[Screen grab from the HIT covert footage]

The video can be watched on YouTube here.

There are concerns amongst some conservationists, including me, that releasing this footage at this stage could jeopardise any potential prosecution. This is (was?) an active police investigation, the estate had been searched, police had seized various items and a number of employees are (were?) due to be questioned this week. Norfolk Police were doing a good job by all accounts and there wasn’t any reason to question their commitment to the investigation.

I doubt very much whether Norfolk Police gave their blessing to release this footage at this stage of the investigation.

The HIT team have already published potentially libellous commentary on Twitter (which I won’t repeat here, for obvious reasons) and they said this about releasing the footage at this stage of the investigation:

We do not believe in sitting on evidence for months and years on end, hoping for an unlikely prosecution whilst wildlife is relentlessly killed. People need to know what goes on within shooting estates and to be empowered to act‘.

I do sympathise with this view, and I guess it’s a reflection of the many police failures to investigate allegations of illegal fox-hunting (which is an area in which the HIT team are very experienced) and failures of some police forces to investigate raptor persecution. People get frustrated when the authorities repeatedly refuse to investigate what looks like clear criminal activity, and so they decide to do what they think is right. But from my point of view, with this particular investigation, Norfolk Police had responded well and were actively pursuing enquiries so the premature release of this footage by the HIT team is hard to comprehend. I wish they’d waited a few more days.

It’s out there now though. And the camera is well-positioned and the footage is very clear.

I hope the release hasn’t jeopardised this police investigation by compromising the planned employee interviews. Even if the case does reach court, a top QC (because let’s face it, that’s who would be representing the defendants) would make light work of drawing attention to this footage and the associated commentary and could argue the defendants wouldn’t get a fair trial.

Let’s see what happens.

UPDATE 16th May 2022: Mail on Sunday blames ‘vigilantes’ for police investigation into alleged wildlife crime on van Cutsem’s estate (here)

25 thoughts on “Covert video footage published showing masked man with trapped goshawk on van Cutsem’s Hilborough Estate”

  1. It was commented by someone on Twitter that the gamekeepers will all offer a no comment police interview, and since their is no vicarious liability it will ultimately result in no conviction.

    By releasing this video it gives the NGO, BASc etc a chance to back up their zero tolerance to raptor persecution and encourage their members to be open and fully help the police. (Although I’m not holding my breath for that)

  2. Don’t think anyone has been identified in the video? This matter is likely to be tried on summary proceedings with no jury . Who is going to be unfairly influenced ? A Stipendiary Magistrate is a trained lawyer and above influence.

    This case appears to be still being investigated and therefor not ‘live’ in terms of persons have been charged or reported for prosecution or legal proceedings have been implemented.

    I’m not convinced there are any contempt/sub judice issues.

    It is common place for police to be accompanied by ‘tag along’ film crews who broadcast pre trial as long as persons are not identified.

  3. I hope that the ‘police-style baton’, referred to in an earlier blog, is being tested for Goshawk DNA.

  4. If the wildlife criminal was identifiable in the video then I would absolutely 100% agree Ruth.

    I think in this case, however, the release of the video can do more good than harm by showing the world that a masked criminal was/is active on (presumably) the Hilborough estate. I think such releases can also be a useful tool in bringing pressure on the police forces to be thorough (or even investigate at all), as let’s face it not all forces are anywhere near proactive enough n wildlife crime as recent events in Dorset have shown.

  5. I’ve supported HIT for some time and believe they do a very valuable job. Their action might be more effective in the long run than waiting for action from establishment forces given the history of such bodies. Public exposure and resulting their potential of increased participation of others in putting an end to these crimes is what is required.
    I do respect your view though but the interpretation of how these laws are enforced and the high level legal access available to the owners means that this time I am with HIT.
    Well said, James Grey.

    1. Spot on. The law is there to protect the powerful elite. First and foremost the public at large need to know what’s going on. xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx. I will donate to HIT

  6. Releasing footage of an unnamed suspect should not hinder the police investigation, as in principle it is no different to the type of footage sometimes released on Crimewatch when the police appeal for witnesses.
    Hopefully Norfolk Constabulary will be aware of the footage and link it in to a public appeal for witnesses to come forward who recognise the individual, or a direct appeal to the individual to come forward so that he can be spoken to regarding the police investigation.
    What HIT should perhaps do is immediately block public comments from appearing on the YouTube page, as depending on what commentators write this could complicate the police investigation if a suspect is identified. Maybe HIT could encourage viewers who recognise the individual to contact Norfolk Constabulary?

    1. John,

      You say: “Releasing footage of an unnamed suspect should not hinder the police investigation, as in principle it is no different to the type of footage sometimes released on Crimewatch when the police appeal for witnesses”.

      I disagree. The main difference is that on Crimewatch, it’s the police who release footage, appropriate to the stage of their investigation. In this case, the police were about to interview the suspects. At that stage, the suspects would have had no idea what sort of evidence the police had available to them, so the police interview could have been an opportunity for them to secure more incriminating evidence. But now the footage has been published, the suspects will have seen it and have been given an opportunity to cover their tracks.

      Don’t get me wrong. I, along with probably most regular readers of this blog, am frustrated at the often poor response of the police to investigating wildlife crime. But in this case, the police were all over it, doing a good job, and for the sake of a few days that video footage could have been held back.

      Had the police been totally disinterested in investigating then I would have been fully behind the early release of the footage.

      But we can’t criticise the police if we’re also going to sabotage their efforts.

      Let’s just hope the police have other evidence available to nail this criminal. Perhaps the forensics will be sufficient.

      1. All fair points but I’d cite a good recent example of early release of video footage when the Hunt Sabs released the Hunting Office ‘trail hunting is a smokescreen for actual fox hunting’ webinar footage. Mark Hankinson (as then director of of Master Foxhounds Assoc.) was subsequently found guilty of encouraging illegal foxhunting and the video evidence was key to nailing him. Of course the defence tried to get the footage thrown out but it remained admissible in this case.

        1. That and many other example of criminal behaviour involving hunting with hounds. I’ve been involved with 2 successful Hunting Act convictions (Fitzwilliam & Thurlow) and was the prime witness along with video footage shot by myself and others. We were encouraged not to release the footage by the police before the trial and in these cases didn’t. However I don’t believe had we done so it would have made any difference to the case.

          In this instance it’s clear that the person responsible will be difficult to identify unless of course he’s thrown under the proverbial bus by his employers in an effort to clear themselves and the release of the footage IMO cannot prejudice the case in any way so why not get it out there?

          As a sab it is our policy to consider the welfare of the birds/animals first, prosecutions can be very difficult to come by and by and large have little fair in the system so we document and then release and probably take appropriate action against the trap used.

      2. Any suspect in a case like this will be lawyered to the max and will give a no comment interview. The idea that there might otherwise have been a self corroborating confession, or any kind of confession, or self incriminating explanation or comment is fanciful.

      3. Ruth, I agree with you that an investigation can be better managed if the police control the release of any evidence through a process of staged disclosure.
        I assumed the person seen in the footage was unknown to the police> In which case publishing the video and appealing for information as to the individuals identity could have been helpful to identifying the man seen entering the crow trap.
        But you are right, it is far better if the police carefully manage disclosure so that hopefully a suspect will provide an account which the police can disprove.
        However, I suspect as others have pointed out, the initial police interviews will be “no comment” interviews, which is the usual legal tactic, as suspects will be advised to wait and see just what evidence the police have against them.

  7. Agree with comments above – this footage is more likely to do good than harm. It will certainly deter most gamekeepers in the area to leave goshawks alone (which surely we all agree is definitely a good thing at this time of year.) Maybe HIT had reasons for their timing.
    Think it’s important now to keep the focus on wildlife persecution – and not wildlife groups criticising each other. The shooting lobby would love such a distraction. Better use of everyone’s time and energy to keep focused on protecting wildlife.

    1. Hi Paul, from experience in another part of the country I fear it won’t deter them from killing Goshawks or only for a few weeks. Ultimately it will just cause them to change their methods either temporarily or permanently. Either refine their use of “corvid” traps or abandon them, instead change tactics possibly by putting in a lot of hours waiting with the gun at dawn and dusk. Sadly I bet nobody, including the HIT people – considers it “job done” in that part of the world.

    2. Do you mean “deter most gamekeepers in the area to leave goshawks alone” or “encourage most gamekeepers in the area to leave goshawks alone”?

  8. Hi RPUK,
    I have read this blog post and wondered if you’ve seen HITs very recent exposure of the Vale of White Horse hunt? ( this video is publicly available to watch, etc.
    How this connects to your blog post is that the local police force have issued photos from the same video ( of interest, in this video there is no covering over of the individuals faces, yet it is still being investigated!
    I believe that in this instance, publishing this video is probably not a bad thing to do, I’m pretty sure HIT know what they’re doing, they’ve been doing this type of thing for a long time now.

  9. Is the Goathland case still in the legal pipeline? That might tell us a lot about when / when not and how to make evidence public to inform best practice in the future. But it’s not just the conservation side that is scrutinising the way these cases are progressed – Estates, Agents and keepers – and the top lawyer- spivs that defend them – will also be looking for changes that need to made to their tactics in order to increase chances of either getting off completely or getting off very lightly.

  10. I dare say we will find out in due course whether this publicity is useful, harmful or neither.

  11. Let’s not pretend police investigations and the legal system are helping “protected” raptors. It’s like Groundhog Day.

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